Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Foucault's genealogical investigations of medicine, madness, prisons, sexuality, etc.

Biopolitics from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro

I’m not sure if the term “biopolitics” was invented by Foucault, but of course he did the most to make the concept thinkable. Foucault traces, in his genealogical investigations of medicine, madness, prisons, sexuality, etc., the ways that a regime of sovereignty, still prevalent in Europe in the Renaissance, was gradually displaced, or supplemented, by a regime of discipline, which was less concerned with the prohibition of certain behaviors than with the surveillance, manipulation, and management of all aspects of human life. Among other things, this involves a shift from being concerned with particular acts, and with clearly-defined hierarchies and chains of command, to being concerned with the bodies and souls of the entire populace. Foucault’s well-known account traces the links between attempts to contain disease by imposing quarantines, for instance, and attempts to regiment people in schools, factories, military barracks, and prisons.

Power moves from prohibiting certain actions to actively shaping and manipulating peoples’ actions overall, and from drawing lines of exclusion, lines that it is forbidden to transgress, to finding ways to include everybody and everything within a grid of carefully managed alternatives and possibilities. Foucault also describes this as a shift from the power of death (the power of the sovereign to impose death as a punishment) to a right over life (the power of the state to manage, for the sake of health, growth, productivity, etc., all aspects of peoples’ bodily habits and tendencies). It is through this shift that “life” becomes a coherent concept, and a matter or focus of concern. “Life” gets defined conceptually, by doctors and judges as well as by philosophers, insofar as it emerges pragmatically as a target and focus of power.

As always, Foucault is saying, not that “discourse” is the sole reality, but rather that both discourses and concrete, physical practices, varying historically, constitute so many ways in which we manage and control a “real” that always exceeds them. Contrary to some foolish interpretations, Foucault always remains a materialist, and a realist (in the ontological sense). “Life” refers to a particular way that we have conceived the multiplicity of lives, living beings, and life processes that surround and include us — but these always exist beyond our conceptualizations and manipulations of them.

So far so good. Esposito is an excellent close reader. He helpfully focuses on the ambiguity, in Foucault’s work: between claiming, on the one hand, that the regime of discipline and the management of life has replaced the earlier regime of sovereignty; and on the other hand, that such a disciplinary form of power is overlaid upon a sovereign power that continues to exist. Foucault proposes, precisely, that different modern regimes have been characterized by different mixtures between sovereign command over, and disciplinary positive investment of, the lives of individuals and populations. Esposito then moves backwards from Foucault to Nietzsche, in whom, he argues, “life” really emerges in its modern sense as an object and focus of both power and inquiry for the first time. 11:29 AM 12:04 PM

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